Sen. Coburn Left Wondering: Why Doesn’t HHS Check Guardians’ Immigration Status?

The Oklahoma Republican got in a heated exchange with a Health and Human Services official about unaccompanied minors at the border.

Sen. Tom Coburn isn't pleased with the government's ability to protect its most sensitive data.
National Journal
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Rachel Roubein
July 9, 2014, noon

The tens of thou­sands of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors who are caught at the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der re­ceive med­ic­al care and tem­por­ary shel­ter. The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment then finds them a more per­man­ent place to live in limbo. But there’s something that goes un­checked: The im­mig­ra­tion status of their newly ap­poin­ted guard­i­an.

Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., blas­ted HHS on Wed­nes­day for that policy, say­ing it “markedly di­min­ishes” the like­li­hood that un­ac­com­pan­ied minors will show up at their sched­uled im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

Chil­dren from Cent­ral Amer­ica’s North­ern Tri­angle are flee­ing their home coun­tries as they at­tempt to es­cape vi­ol­ence and eco­nom­ic dis­par­it­ies plaguing the re­gion. And when they’re caught at the bor­der, HHS is tasked with se­cur­ing a place for them to stay while they await an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

About 95 per­cent of the time, the child is taken out of the HHS’s shel­ter and placed with a par­ent, re­l­at­ive, or non­re­l­at­ive spon­sor. These guard­i­ans are told they’re re­quired to bring the child to all court pro­ceed­ings, said Mark Green­berg, act­ing as­sist­ant sec­ret­ary for HHS’s Ad­min­is­tra­tion for Chil­dren and Fam­il­ies.

But com­mit­tee rank­ing mem­ber Coburn wanted to know wheth­er HHS checks the im­mig­ra­tion status of those spon­sors first. And it’s a ques­tion he asked re­peatedly at a Wed­nes­day hear­ing of the Home­land Se­cur­ity and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Com­mit­tee. Coburn, who sup­ports de­port­ing chil­dren quickly, grew frus­trated dur­ing the ex­change, and his ques­tions be­came more poin­ted and his voice more heated.

Coburn: You’re miss­ing my point. My point is, I’m all for hav­ing the chil­dren in the best place, don’t get me wrong. But if you’re not check­ing im­mig­ra­tion status of those that you place with them, and if, in fact, they are not here leg­ally, the like­li­hood that they’re go­ing to show up be­fore a judge is markedly di­min­ished be­cause it ex­poses them. So the ques­tion I would ask you is, why you all don’t ask for status of the people that you place these chil­dren with?

Green­berg: So, the spe­cif­ic as­pects of what hap­pens in the pro­ceed­ings are best ad­dressed by my col­league at the De­part­ment of Justice.

Coburn: I know. I un­der­stand that. I’m ask­ing you the ques­tion, why you don’t ask the status of the people with whom you’re pla­cing the child? Why do you not ask that ques­tion? Be­cause in all like­li­hood, they are not go­ing to show for an im­mig­ra­tion hear­ing.

Green­berg: So, for us the fo­cus needs to be on a safe and ap­pro­pri­ate place­ment for the child.

Coburn: You’re not go­ing to an­swer my ques­tion. Why you do not ask that ques­tion of those people with whom you’re pla­cing these chil­dren?

Green­berg: So, even if we have the in­form­a­tion as to the par­ent or oth­er re­l­at­ive’s im­mig­ra­tion status we would still, at that point, need to look at the to­tal­ity of the cir­cum­stances.

Coburn: I don’t dis­agree with that. I’m ask­ing why do you not ask that ques­tion?

Green­berg: Sir, the reas­on —

Coburn: Is it the policy of HHS not to ask the status of the per­son with whom you’re pla­cing the child?

Green­berg: We do not spe­cific­ally —

Coburn: Is that the policy of HHS of this coun­try?

Green­berg: Yes, it is. That is the case. Yes.

Nearly 18 per­cent of total mi­grants fail to at­tend their court pro­ceed­ing, but the Justice De­part­ment doesn’t have the per­cent­age of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors who are no-shows, Juan Os­una, DOJ Ex­ec­ut­ive Of­fice of Im­mig­ra­tion Re­view dir­ect­or, said at the Wed­nes­day hear­ing.

Cur­rently, law­makers are in the midst of de­term­in­ing how to ad­dress the in­flux of un­ac­com­pan­ied minors en­ter­ing the coun­try il­leg­ally, and Con­gress has some lee­way to ana­lyze the situ­ation and make de­mands. Pres­id­ent Obama needs both cham­bers to ap­prove emer­gency fund­ing to ad­dress the hu­man­it­ari­an crisis — and how to best to stop chil­dren from liv­ing in the shad­ows.


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